Boris Johnson speaking to the UK Covid-19 inquiry

Did Eat Out to Help Out increase Covid-19 cases?

Boris Johnson has given evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry in recent days, as the decisions he and the UK Government made during the pandemic are scrutinised. 

The sessions have drawn in many aspects of the government’s response and Covid-19 mitigation policies, including the controversial “Eat out to help out” scheme launched in August 2020. 

Under questioning, Johnson said the policy didn’t “add to the budget of risk”, despite it being criticised by the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who reportedly labelled it “eat out to help the virus”.

Ferret Fact Service looks at the evidence.

What was Eat Out to Help Out?

Eat out to Help Out was a scheme launched by the UK Government that took place in August 2020. 

Under the scheme, the government covered half the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks in participating businesses in the UK on Mondays to Wednesdays, as an incentive for people to use hospitality businesses and boost their income, which had been negatively affected by Covid-19 lockdown. 

It took place as the UK came out of the initial period of lockdown restrictions in June 2020, although there were rules in place limiting household mixing. 

When it was announced, the scheme was broadly supported by many in the hospitality sector, although a number of experts questioned whether it would have the desired impact on the industry. 

Its impact on Covid-19 cases was also queried at the scheme’s outset, with a number of health experts arguing that it would encourage household mixing which could increase infections. 

What did Boris Johnson say about the scheme in his evidence?

The former prime minister was asked about the decision to put in place Eat Out to Help Out in his recent evidence session to the Covid-19 inquiry on Thursday 7 December. 

He said: “The disease was no longer spreading as it had been and that, within the budget of risk, it was now possible to open up hospitality. That being so, logically if we were going to take advantage of that… it seemed to me to make sense to make sure they actually had some customers.”

After it was put to him that the policy was an unnecessary risk, he said: “It was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk.”

This so-called ‘budget of risk’ is how the government balanced the risks of increased Covid-19 cases caused by loosening restrictions, with the potential positive outcomes for the economy and population. 

How did the scheme affect Covid-19 cases?

There have been a few studies done which have looked at Eat Out To Help Out’s impact on Covid-19 cases in the UK. 

One, from the CAGE research centre at the University of Warwick, found areas where the scheme’s discount was used a lot had an increase in new Covid-19 infections a week after it came into force.

According to the research, eight to and 17 per cent of “newly detected Covid-19 infection clusters” could be attributed to the scheme. 

Areas of high uptake also saw a decrease in infections the week after the scheme ended, the research found.

Infection clusters are the name for infections which share the same location, so it does not mean there was an eight to 17 per cent increase in cases overall, but an identified rise in “clusters”. However, this is a rough estimate, described as “a back of the envelope calculation,” so we should look at these statistics with caution. 

The UK Government’s weekly Covid-19 surveillance report in late August 2020, when the scheme was in place, stated that “eating out was the most commonly reported activity in the two to seven days prior to symptom onset.”

However, research on the direct impact of Eat Out to Help Out has been mixed. 

Data analysed by The Resolution Foundation’s Cara Pacitti in September 2020 showed Eat Out to Help out had not had much of an effect on increasing Covid-19 cases. 

Research by Toby Phillips at the University of Oxford, found that while the scheme clearly enticed people to eat out, longer term trends show that restaurant attendance had already rebounded to 2019 levels by the beginning of August. 

The research found a loose correlation between uptake of the scheme and new cases, looking at English regions in the last weeks of August.

Infection rates were, according to the research, already increasing before the scheme came into force, as people began mixing more in public places as lockdown restrictions were eased. 

It is hard to analyse the impact of the scheme accurately, as it relies on people’s behaviour which is difficult to predict. 

While the scheme was intended to encourage people to use hospitality businesses, it also took place at the time when lockdown restrictions were relaxed. This means that people were more likely to be using restaurants and cafes than previously, regardless of the policy.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles.

All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here.

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